My childhood was spent in a haze of books and familial propriety. The small-town-America life, where children safely walked alone to school and dawdled their way home, lulled into daydreams by the sweetness of the neighbors’ gardens, is probably gone now, but the visuals are clear to me still. A wall of rambling roses at Mrs. Flynn’s… an exaltation of wildflowers behind Dr. Goldstein’s mansion… the New York skyline beyond the great river that separated me from my destiny, or so I believed. Wait for me New York, I’m coming… I’d breathe to it from Boulevard East, staring out at the glittering, beckoning megaliths of Manhattan. All those childhood images are as close to me now, as the scene outside my office window.
Life was good, except for my mother’s Vesuvian temper, which I’d more or less learned to deal with by going underground to my imagination. I also went to the library, a magnificent old edifice with all-but crenellated battlements, an ivy covered round tower and several leftover suits of armor, collected by some turn of the century tycoon, who’d created a castle that would become a book depository… and my escape to Paradise.
To this fairytale place, I would go on my bike most afternoons, to do homework and read. The tower housed the Classics, which no one cared a fig about, so I had it and them to myself, an elegant fortress world filled with other people’s dreams. I read my way around the room methodically as a mouse nibbling a round of cheddar, literary nourishment plumping up my psyche. I lost myself in the words of the greats, and dreamed the impossible dream of someday seeing my own books on a library shelf.
They had a copy of the Rubaiyat, similar to the edition my father had given me, which I cherished as if it were a sacred text. I can recite most of it still, having read it so often, that the pages frayed:
“The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: Nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line
Nor all thy Tears wash out a word of it.”
The Rubaiyat thrilled me as no other single volume. The words and woodcuts gave life a sinister, tawdry tinge; they implied a vulnerable and mysterious underbelly I hadn’t suspected. And those pictures! Lusty men with wine flasks fondling women’s breasts. Sickle-scythed Death stalking a carefree young couple as they played together. If life could be like this for Irish Catholics as well as Arabs and Victorian poets, there’d be a lot to learn about, after I left Weehawken, New Jersey.
Weehawken – Leni Lenape for the Nesting Place of the Great birds – is perched on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River, which allowed me to learn perspective, better than any art classes I ever took. I’d watch the tiny toy-sized cars come off the Weehawken ferry boat hundreds of feet below the Palisades, and then grow larger as they scurried up the cliffside road. I’d stand gazing out at the Wide World, planning my assault on New York, and watching the cars get bigger and bigger as they chugged up the hill from Edgewater, where the Mafia buried its leftover dead that wouldn’t fit into Secaucus. New York, of course, remained the perfect size – glittering silver steel buildings like palaces across the water. I’m coming, I would tell New York City, I’ll be there soon. And, indeed, New York welcomed me in a way that kept me there for half a century. But in my heart of hearts, that old castle-like library that had nurtured my soul with stories and dreams, still remained sacrosanct in my memory.
I hadn’t been back to Weehawken in many, many years, but when my High School honored me with a lovely award, I returned. Dakota was with me and I’d been telling her about my beloved library since she was old enough to read, so off we went to show her my stained glass sanctuary of a round tower, my suits of armor, my vine covered stone steps that led to the tower room where the beloved tales resided. And it was all gone. So very gone that no one, not even the librarian, remembered it had ever been there at all.
The library had been redone, as I suppose it had to be with the passage of time… the antiques replaced with practical metal tables and chairs… the floor plan altered to accommodate computers. I felt as disheartened as if the Cathedral at Chartres had been replaced with cinderblocks. Even the ancient stones of the façade had been replaced by something ersatz (and more practical, I expect) the crenellations lived only in my imagination, and my round tower had been banished from all but memory. So the moving finger had, indeed, moved on, as the poet said, and all my Piety nor Wit could lure it back…
Yet, my magical tower still lives as vividly in my mind as on the last day I sat there, in the big leather armchair, in the virtual company of some of the greatest thinkers ever to put pen to the page. I can smell the old paper and bindings, hear the tap of ivy on ancient windowpanes, feel the power of the silence and the eloquence of ages, alchemically combined in one magical cauldron. Without this stately sanctuary would I ever have written the historical stories that brought me both fame and joy, I ask myself? Perhaps nothing can keep a writer from the tales that live within… but maybe I would not feel as if I’d lived these tales, as well as written them, had it not been for this tiny time-warp that put me in the company of the poets, kings and knaves, the heroes, heroines, rogues and lovers whom I met in the long forgotten books of my tower room.
The wisdom and grace of the literature will surely survive being read on a kindle or iPad, but wasn’t I the lucky one to have been privileged to peer into the passions of the whole history of the world in a tower room Rapunzel might have envied?
© Cathy Cash Spellman/The Wild Harp & Co. Inc 2012